Many years ago I had a conversation with a young couple who had just heard an introduction to Buddhist practice by Shinzen Young. Before long, one of them said, “But if we do this practice, it might change how we live!” I had to admit that this was true, and pointed out that it might gradually lead to wiser choices.
Most of us know that we could make improvements to our lifestyle, but we think about it reluctantly. Our idea of who we are is tied up with the most mundane habits, some of long-standing and others quite new. Our food preferences, our choices in entertainment, our relations with family members – these and many other factors add up to “who we are”. For this reason, a challenge to any part of this identification process can feel like an attack. If being knowledgeable about wine and appreciating a nice drop is a regular part of our day, thinking of giving it up can be upsetting.
The training recommended by the Buddha is designed to upset the status quo; it’s not meant to protect our comfort zone. Over time, we change who we spend time with, what activities we participate in, and how we think about our life. What principles are guiding our decision-making?
The fifth precept is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness.” Whole sectors of society would see this as an outlandish idea. Intoxication with drink or drugs is considered a reward for working, or a necessary part of relaxation. Many individuals self-medicate with alcohol or recreational drugs to avoid confronting the underlying causes of their unhappiness. Some people consider getting so high that they black out a standard form of fun. This is all very much a part of our general cultures. The Buddha points out that when we’re intoxicated, we don’t think straight; intoxication leads away from mindfulness and towards mindlessness.
You may say, “Well, I can drink or smoke dope without getting intoxicated”. In a relative sense this is true. One glass of wine may impair our judgment to an imperceptible degree. However, the first drink or toke makes the second and third ones more likely, and in no case does it improve mindfulness.
At a societal level, intoxication is associated with domestic violence, traffic tragedies, even murder. Because the consequences can be so serious, we ought to look carefully at what we are doing with alcohol or drugs. There are social programs that aim to mitigate the damage, but for our own integrity, it must begin with us examining our relationship to intoxicants. If we’re part of a social group that floats along on a sea of drink or drugs, how do we feel about that? Do we have other opportunities for social connection?
For most of us, reflecting on and discussing our drinking/drugging habits is a slow and gradual process. Shutting things down in one go is rarely sustainable. When we decide that we want to choose mindfulness over carelessness at every opportunity, quite a few of our habits may change.